Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

For Whomst Does the Neologism Toll?

Back in the days of yore known as last month, the American Dialect Society presented papers and selected fake news as the 2017 word of the year. Fake news beat out contenders such as alternative facts, persisterhood, and take a knee — plus the silly and wonderful whomst.

ADS defined this term as a "Humorous variant of 'whom' used as a sarcastic display of intelligence." Indeedst, whomst is a ridiculous, preposterous, refreshing word that satisfies the timeless need to pop the balloon of pretension. Sometimes — mayhaps many times — we need words to help us make fun of other words, not to mention the preening posers who use them, including ourselves. And by adding a few letters and/syllables, it's easy to comically weaponize a word.

Whomst has been appearing mainly in memes and social media for the past few years, mocking the big brains of the folks who would allegedly use such a word. As Jay Hathaway put it on The Daily Dot about a year ago: "Many incorrectly believe that 'whom' is a form of 'who' that pretentious people use when they want to sound smart. But if that were the case, then 'whomst' would be even smarter, and 'whomst'd' would be for absolute geniuses only." To follow this logic, you'd have to be a Wile E. Coyote-level super-genius to use even longer variations, such as whom'st'd've'ed, which I promise I didn't make up.

Whomst conveys a meaning not unlike whom-schmom, an example of mocking reduplication with a Yiddish flavor. Rhyme is also used for comedic effect in phonus balonus, a bogus Latinate version of phony baloney. The term is at least as old as 1929, and humorist P. G. Wodehouse used the term in his 1936 novel Laughing Gas: "Sure. It was just a bit of phonus-bolonus. I was stringing you along so's I could get hold of that notebook. I'd be a fine sap giving you money." If phony baloney is a bunch of malarkey, phonus balonus is a wine glass of vintage malarkey with notes of snoot and an arrogant mouthfeel.

A proven method of coining of pseudoscientific, often humorous words is by adding –ology or –ologist. I should know: I write a column about comics legend Jack Kirby called Kirbyology. I'm far from original in the ology department. The OED records traitorology in the 17th century, trickology in the 18th century, and bugology, dogology, and noseology in the 19th. Also in the 19th century, the OED records bumpologist, crazyologist, and turnipologist. These days, these words can be winking self-branding or accurate description of an unusual expert with a bit of shade thrown to ologists who earned their suffix in school.

French playwright Alfred Jarry went further in the 1930s by inventing his own pseudo-science: pataphysics. Jarry defined pataphysics, which famously is to metaphysics as metaphysics is to physics, as "the science of imaginary solutions, an exact science and a liberal art." His ludicrous MacBeth spoof Pa Ubu boasted, "Pataphysics is a branch of science which we have invented and for which a crying need is generally experienced." While pataphysics was a creative vehicle for the ultra-inventive Jarry, it also provided a sharp stick for poking the scientific and the pretentious, which do get lumped together, for better and worse.

Pataphysicians tend to speechify, to use another clever word. It verbifies speech, filling a certain gap in English, since speak doesn't quite convey the gassiness of speechify, which has been found in print since the 1700s. This and similar words are stuffed with extra, seemingly meaningless syllables to create a self-mocking term, much like Homer Simpson coinages such as edumacation and saxamaphone. Slantindicular has been around since the mid-1800s. Obstropolous and obfusticate have mangle obstreperous since the 1700s and obfuscate since the 1800s, respectively.

Then there's one of the greatest words ever: discombobulate, which mutates and mocks the likes of discomfit and discompose. Newspaper archives turn up a variation back in 1825: "It is feared the leading ones will find their plans rather discomboberated, since they have found that Gaines intends to pursue an honorable and impartial course." Green's Dictionary of Slang records the tremendous variations discombobligate, discomfoozle, discomfuddle, and discumboblificate. Such words could befuddle a discombobologist.

These words are versatile fun-pokers. Take bibulate, first found in the 1700s, which the OED describes it as, "A bombastic or humorous diminutive from Latin bibĕre to drink" that also plays on bibble, an underused word meaning "to drink" since the 1500s. Variations abound. A Boston Herald article from 1883 refers to bibulants, and a St. James's Gazette article from 1882 describes, "The extraordinary capacity for bibulation displayed by the regular soldier." In other words, "Holy Moses, those soldiers can drink." That use displays deadpan humor, which can be applied to others or yourself. If you declared, "I love to bibulate ginger ale," you're probably being silly and self-deprecating.

Sometimes the comedic power of extra syllables is used to hammer a political target. In a 2000 Saturday Night Live episode, moderator Jim Lehrer (played by Chris Parnell) says, "I will instead ask each candidate to sum up, in a single word, the best argument for his candidacy. Governor Bush?" Will Ferrell's response as Bush: "Strategery." In a bizarre twist, the term was then adopted by the Bush administration. A Newsweek article from later in 2000 includes this amazing sentence: "Privately, [Karl] Rove's team — the 'strategery' department, as staffers dryly referred to it in Bushspeak — had long ago put Florida in the tough-to-win column." Language is a stranger beast than the jackalope.

Words like whomst and strategery and speechify (plus other gems such as absquatulate) prove that all those demands to keep your writing concise and fluff-free can be pure bunk. (Or should I say hunkum-bunkum?) Extra letters and syllables sometimes add no definite denotation, but they bring comedic connotation to spare. With a little extra padding, words can heckle other words, other folks, and ourselves, who we should never take too seriously. Who needs words like discomfuddle? Whomst doesn't?


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Friday February 23rd, 9:12 AM
Comment by: JoAnn Z.
Are you aware of the designated "RECOMBOBULATION AREA", after TSA check in the airport in Milwaukee?
Friday February 23rd, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Nancy N.
Very eruditifying.
Saturday February 24th, 2:09 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
Great article! Lots of fun! However, I heard people using 'edumacation' back in the late 60s and early 70s. Long before Homer Simpson appeared on the scene.
Saturday February 24th, 9:55 PM
Comment by: Dan F. (Minneapolis, MN)
I assume that another derivation of "bibulate" or "bibble" is "imbibe." Which could mutate into "imbibation," or "imbibatory," etc.
Another famous "Simpsons" word is "embiggen."
Sunday February 25th, 11:06 AM
Comment by: John B.
I am deep in poetolory. Rhymefication, or not?
Monday February 26th, 4:59 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi, JoAnn Z.: Ben Zimmer, the Visual Thesaurus's former executive producer, wrote about "recombobulation area" a couple of times. Here's a post from 2009: https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/the-word-of-the-year-is-bailout/ And here's one from 2014: https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/wordroutes/getting-discombobulated-on-lexicon-valley/
Wednesday March 7th, 12:52 PM
Comment by: Aaryan Singh (India)
Very nice article.
Thursday March 15th, 11:44 AM
Comment by: Calvin § (NH)
Nice article.

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